It is often difficult to categorize certain artists. Agnes Obel definitely falls into this bracket. The Danish singer/songwriter has just released her first album, Philharmonics. It is an interesting title choice for a recording that is anything but Philharmonic in scale. Obel‘s music is sparse to say the least but it does have an innovative quality that certainly appeals.
Born in Copenhagen in 1981, Obel claims to be heavily influenced by the classical composers, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Satie and popular artists, Roy Orbison, Joni Mitchell and Jan Johansson. On listening to the 12 songs that comprise Philharmonics, some of these influences can be distinctly heard. Although folk music features all the way through Obel’s compositions, it is the sparse atmospheric sound that is predominant. Obel writes, performs and produces everything herself. She studied the piano from an early age and was taught by her mother.
There are three instrumental numbers on this album. The first, Falling, Catching is purely piano solo and immediately Satie springs to mind. The clashing harmonies are pure Bartok and the falling melody is reflected in the title of the song. Loretta combines synth and keyboard sounds with the piano and is characterized by a few simple chords and Wallflower has an ethereal lilting quality combining solo cello with piano.
The remaining numbers are all vocal. Obel has a breathy, light voice which is suited to this kind of minimalist style. Many of the songs are multitracked so that Obel is able to produce interesting vocal harmonies. Brother Sparrow and Just So use both piano and guitar accompaniments, both have pretty lilting melodies. Avenue and Over the Hill combine simple chordal harmonies with breathy reflective vocal lines. The album title, Philharmonics uses strong minor chords providing an emotional element which mimics the lyrics. Some songs employ brush drums and many synth combinations as well as the piano adding richer textures to the sound. More upbeat numbers are On Powdered Ground and Beast. However, most of the songs are slow, atmospheric and could be effectively used as a film soundtrack. Indeed Riverside has already been successfully used in the 2010 film, Submarino and also in the TV show, Grey’s Anatomy.
Agnes Obel may not be to everyone’s taste but there is gentle warmth to her music. It is disarmingly simple and easy to be charmed by this rather understated and unassuming style. Whether Obel can continue to produce new material in this mould remains to be seen.